Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Fumbling towards humanity in "The Lives of Others"


written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
starring Ulrich Mühe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck

What do loyalty and integrity mean in a world built on oppression, fear, and distrust? The power of “The Lives of Others” lies in its realization that they can be compromised, yet also redefined and reaffirmed, rather than simply destroyed. As such, the film emerges as both a tragedy and a testament to the human spirit.

Most of “The Lives of Others,” an impressive debut by writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, takes place in Berlin of the 1980s, before the thawing of the Cold War. The film captures a society in which surveillance and brutal interrogation are the rule rather than the exception, and where even a simple question can support suspicion of treason. The overall effect is a perpetual, low-grade paranoia with a drearily quotidian feel, perfectly embodied in the gray-clad figure of Stasi agent Hauptman Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe). We first meet Wiesler methodically extracting a confession from a subject who slowly wilts before his dogged persistence. Operating with the intentness of a true believer, Wiesler registers as not so much inhumane as simply inhuman. He’s so distilled the purpose of his existence to unearthing traitors and dissidents (synonymous in his eyes) that he seems, at first, to have no other dimension. It takes another man from an entirely different side of Berlin—a man he doesn’t even meet until nearly the end of the movie—to reveal unsuspected depths in his own character.

This other man is a charming, urbane, and successful playwright, Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch), who’s somehow managed to be read and renowned on both sides of the Iron Curtain without running afoul of the East German authorities. Nevertheless, an order from a high-ranking minister (Thomas Thieme) with his own axe to grind puts the probe on Dreymann. Wiesler is tasked with wiretapping the playwright’s house—a beautiful old building with graceful architectural lines, lived-in furniture, and warm lighting that pose a stark contrast to the bleak sterility of Wiesler’s own apartment—and monitoring all conversations, meetings, and activities that occur there. From this position he becomes intimately acquainted with the details of Dreymann’s life, particularly his relationship with his lover and muse, Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), a famous actress who stars in his plays. And what Wiesler observes begins to work a gradual change in his thoughts and attitude towards his mission and the regime he serves, even as his doubts find a kind of unwitting echo in the changing thoughts and feelings expressed by the seemingly unimpeachable Dreymann.

Not all viewers may find Wiesler’s inner conflict convincing. Certainly the incorruptible Stasi man does seem to act out of character a little too early on, especially in a chance encounter with Christa-Maria that doesn’t quite ring true. At the same time, the gulf between the emotional and aesthetic poverty of Wiesler’s existence and the music, poetry, intellectual sophistication and sexual passion that fill the lives of the “others” can’t help making his turn feel a tad overdetermined. Still, Mühe’s performance is so compelling that it overcomes all such quibbles. He conveys an aspect by turns menacing and pathetic, icy and yearning, all with the subtlest shift in his clear blue eyes—the only striking feature in his otherwise nondescript appearance.

Next to him, Koch and Gedeck exude a poignant vulnerability as Wiesler’s foils and victims, while Ulrich Tukur stands out as his superior officer, a shrewder and smoother operator than Wiesler who knows that moral conviction is not what oils the machinery they run. It’s Wiesler’s slow arrival at this same realization that indirectly precipitates the inevitable catastrophe, underlining the terrible toll that state-coerced espionage can (and did) take on the private lives and relationships of individuals. But “The Lives of Others,” which works as both a crisply plotted thriller and a quiet morality play, ultimately concludes on a note of hope rather than despair. Neither a false uplift nor a direct affirmation of either Wiesler’s or Dreymann’s choices, the film's ending simply recognizes that in questioning their respective paths, they may have remained truest to themselves and to what they most deeply believed.



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